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Tale of a slave revolt in Greg Grandin's 'The Empire of Necessity'

Amasa Delano, a New England sea captain sailing off the Chilean coast in February 1805, thought he was helping a ship in distress when he boarded the Tryal with an offer of food, water and assistance. Adrift in dangerous waters, its worn hull covered with barnacles and trailing seaweed, the Tryal was, indeed, in distress. But not in the manner Delano suspected.

The Tryal was a Spanish slaver on which the slaves had revolted two months earlier, killing most of their captors while sparing Capt. Benito Cereño because they needed him to sail them back to Africa. When Delano boarded the ship, the West Africans on deck pretended they were still slaves in bondage, and over nine hours Delano took the charade at face value, unaware that the leaders of the revolt stood ready to kill Cereño if he tipped off Delano.

But as Delano's skiff pulled away to return him to his own ship, the Perseverance, Cereño suddenly vaulted over the side of the Tryal and into the small vessel, begging Delano's small boarding crew to row quickly.

With that act, the slaves' last shot at freedom died. Delano, despite his anti-slavery sentiments, sent a raiding party to the Tryal, where the slaves were no match for the guns, knives and trained violence of the Perseverance's crew of experienced whalers and seal hunters, who left the deck awash in blood. A few weeks later, nine ringleaders were hanged in Concepcion, Chile, and the surviving West Africans were sold into bondage.

The story of the Tryal is a short one: slaves turning the tables on their captors, only to be trumped by a stronger and merciless physical force. Yet around that simple frame, historian Greg Grandin has crafted in his new "The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World" a fascinatingly intimate and meandering revisit to the early 19th century slave trade in and around South America.

He also uses it as a spark for rumination on paradox: an antislavery ship's captain re-enslaving Africans; an "age of liberty" coinciding with "the Age of Slavery"; and the transition of an economic system based on chattel slavery to one of wages, a different kind of bondage. As Herman Melville's Ishmael asked in the beginning of "Moby-Dick," "Who ain't a slave?"

Grandin, a New York University history professor, previously wrote "Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City," a National Book Award finalist about Ford's ill-fated effort to create an American-style factory town to produce rubber in Brazil's Amazon rainforest. In a similar vein, "The Empire of Necessity" — the title comes from Melville — uses the story of the Tryal as a doorway into a time and a place and then rummages around.

We read, for instance, of the presence of learned Muslims kidnapped into slavery and the foreseeable consequences of trying to keep them docile and working the land. Their faith, education and ability to organize made them leaders of revolts, and after one such uprising in 1521 on a plantation owned by Christopher Columbus' son, Spain barred the transportation of Africans believed to be Muslims.

Grandin also offers interspersed chapters called "Interludes" in which he discusses, among other things, Melville, whose novel "Benito Cereno" was based on the Tryal revolt; on the nature of slavery and its role in amassing wealth; and on whaling and sealing's place in the economic rise of the Americas. In fact, those two "industries" were what led the Tryal and the Perseverance — one engaged in slavery and the other in seal hunting — to cross paths on that fateful February morning.

At one point, Grandin compares Melville's Ahab from "Moby-Dick" with Delano. Where Ahab has become "synonymous with ruin" in the pursuit of obsession, Delano "represents a more common form of modern authority." As the captain of a seal ship that can find no seals (they'd been hunted to near-extinction), Delano struggles in a rapidly changing market under pressure from creditors and financiers to turn a profit. Abandoned by its captain, the Tryal is a prize to capture and sell — ship, stock and slave cargo included.

"Caught in the pincers of supply and demand and trapped in the vortex of ecological exhaustion, with his own crew on the brink of mutiny because there are no seals left to kill and no money to be made, Delano rallies men to the chase, not of a white whale but of black rebels. Their slide into barbarism … happens not because he is dissenting from the laws of commerce and capital but because he faithfully and routinely administers them."

Yes, it's a different world now, but one in which greed and avarice reward a few at the expense of many. Slavery has gone from an underpinning of national economies to an illegal aberration, Grandin seems to argue, but the impulses behind it — racism, opportunism and ethics-free capitalism — live on.

"Free trade promised (and still promises) that if men were set free to pursue their self-interests, an ever more harmonious world would result," Delano writes in his final chapter. "Experience has proven otherwise. In the United States, a purer ideal of freedom has come to hold sway, at least among some, based on the principals of liberal democracy and laissez-faire economics but also on a more primal animus, an individual supremacy that not only denies the necessities that bind people together but resents any reminder of those necessities."

Martelle is the Irvine-based author of, most recently, "Detroit: A Biography."

The Empire of Necessity
Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World

Greg Grandin
Metropolitan: 384 pp., $30

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